TOPICS > Politics

Public Opinion After Katrina

September 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: National polls are showing a drop in public support not only for President Bush, but also highlighting strong disapproval of governments at all levels in their response to Hurricane Katrina. Here to discuss those numbers with us is Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

And Andy, let’s start with the number from your pollsters. I think it’s pretty consistent across all the major public opinion research organizations. The overall job approval for President Bush, 40 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove. What is significant about that number?

ANDREW KOHUT: Two things, first, this is the lowest rating we have he gotten for bush since he’s taken office. Now in part he’s had a bad summer. Part of this is Iraq, but he’s also slipped in response to Katrina. And in historic terms, President Clinton was at 58 percent, President Reagan was at 60 percent at a comparable time in their presidency. The only numbers that were lower than this, seven or eight months into or nine months into a second term was President Nixon who had a 34 as he was falling down the Watergate hole. But this is very bad for President Bush.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned that the numbers were already starting to soften because of Iraq but here comes the Katrina obsession, as the whole country turns its gaze towards New Orleans. And in a very interesting set of numbers: In getting relief efforts going quickly, the president did all he could, about one out of four responded said that. But two-thirds say he could have done more.

ANDREW KOHUT: Quite an indictment. 67 percent was a negative opinion and 40 percent of Republicans who are so loyal to President Bush said yes he could have done more. There is a fair amount of Republican discontent with President Bush’s performance here and even in his overall rating which is very, very unusual.

The thing about President Bush is he has had a strong leadership image that was crafted in another crisis, Sept. 11. And that has been an integral part of the way the American public sees him. A year ago the CBS poll found 64 percent saying President Bush was a strong leader. When they did their poll this week, they only found 48 percent saying he is a strong leader. His personal image has really been badly affected because in the end, the buck does stop with him. The public is highly critical of the federal government, even more so than they are critical of state and local governments. And he’s in charge.

RAY SUAREZ: And it seems highly pessimistic given the other questions that you asked them, in a bad mood right now.

ANDREW KOHUT: They are in a bad mood. I mean, this is, I don’t want to be overdramatic but this is a shock to the American public. 58 percent of the people that we interviewed said they were depressed. Only in the surveys taken days after 9/11 found a higher number. People said they were angry, 50 percent. 55 percent said they were shocked to use those very words in an ABC-Post poll. And the ABC-Post post poll also found 44 percent said we’re embarrassed by this.

This is a story that the public hasn’t been able to walk away from — 70 percent following very closely — one of the four or five most closely followed stories in 20 years of surveying news interest. This is — this is big news and a big deal to the American public.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, pursuant to that high level of interest in the story as it has been unfolding over the last week or more, the whole country whether it has a connection or not has been watching New Orleans through television, radios, magazines, and has opinions about what went on there and what it meant for the people there.

ANDREW KOHUT: Absolutely. And those opinions for the people are largely sympathetic. Most people, I think we have a slide showing that most people think that those people who were stranded there — 62 percent — they didn’t — they didn’t want to stay. It is just that they could not get out. There is tremendous personal sympathy.

We had 57 percent in the poll that we conducted this week saying they had already made a donation of money to help the victims of this flood — 28 percent, another 28 percent saying they were going to do so. So the American public really cares about the people of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

RAY SUAREZ: And it showed an uncomfortable spotlight on to race and class, two things Americans often have discomfort in talking about. Talk about some of these numbers which are really amazingly diverse.

ANDREW KOHUT: The lesson for — the lessons were different for whites and blacks. And this slide shows that 66 percent of blacks said that if the victims of Katrina had been white, they would have been moved out — they would have gotten out faster. 78 percent of the whites we interviewed said absolutely not — it would have been the same, white or black.

We found out 66 percent majority of African-Americans saying the lesson here is that racial discrimination is still a problem. When we asked that question of whites they largely said, or a majority, 55 percent majority said no, it’s not. White and blacks look at the implications, what happened on the ground very, very differently.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Kohut, thanks for being with us.

ANDREW KOHUT: You are welcome.